Cyclocross: the hour of power

Filling in the blanks: Autumn 2013/14

Cyclocross (CX, ‘cross) was the first real off-road bicycle racing. With origins as an early 1900s ‘steeple-chase’ it eventually developed into a UCI world championship event by 1950. Races are up to an hour in length and consist of lapping a short mixed-terrain course typically consisting of gravel, grass, mud, and sand. There may be short paved sections and every course will have a man-made obstruction such as stairs, ramps, and the famous wooden barriers that may be up to 40cm tall. These require all but the most skilled riders to dismount and carry the bike on their shoulder. Races are held in the autumn/winter season, and while the sport is really booming across Europe and North America, the Belgians dominate both on and off the bike.

The sport has always been popular with road racers as it falls during their off-season. It provides an intense workout and really sharpens up a rider’s bike handling skills. It was through a few such friends that I was introduced to the sport. I went along to watch some of them racing in 2012 and got hooked on the ‘Behind the Barriers‘ web tv show that followed big US ‘cross personality Jeremy Powers throughout his season. It soon became apparent that the cyclocross scene is very open to all-comers of any ability. There are races for different categories and after the sprint off the line for the first corner, the pack spreads out quickly and little races take place throughout the field be it for podium or 35th place. Everyone battles the terrain.

I really wanted to have a go.

My long distance running left little time to enjoy the bikes for most of the year but cyclocross fell perfectly within my off-season, and like the endurance road racers, the shorter threshold intensity races would be a beneficial change from all the long hours at lower effort. My mountain running would also give me an advantage in the unrideable sections… but hey, why am I making excuses? Really, it just looked like so much fun that I wanted to get involved.

I needed an appropriate bike: a beefed up road bike frame with lower gears, cables routed above the top-tube to enable shouldering the bike, plus clearance for wider tyres and cantilever (or disc) brakes. Cyclocross bikes traditionally had a different geometry frameset from a standard road bike with a higher bottom bracket to help clear obstacles and a steep head-tube angle for tight low speed turns. Many of today’s race focussed bikes retain these features, although there are a growing number of offerings that compromise closer to a road geometry, especially at the entry level… we amateurs just want to have fun and may well second the same bike for commuting, bike packing, or winter road training. My chosen Vitus Energie was such a bike and after installing tubeless mud tyres and a shorter stem I was ready.

Craig lifting bike to jump over wooden barrier typical of cyclocross races.

Photographer unknown.

The Ulster Cyclocross league has a stacked calendar with a race nearly every Sunday from October to Christmas, rounding the season off just after New Year with the Irish National Championship race. I did some training rides around Belvoir playing fields to get used to the handling and practice rolling mounts and dismounts with the clipless pedals, but it did little to prepare me for the first race. I lined up at the back of the B pack in Lurgan Park alongside 50 other riders. We chatted, joked and laughed until the whistle blew…then sprinted off down the long straight in an attempt to separate out before the first bottleneck turns. I had managed to work up into the pack and so felt the immense pressure to not fall off with riders immediately behind me. Roughly seven minutes later we had chased each other around to the start line again, already a minute down on the leader with lactic acid building in the legs and body temperature rocketing. After two more laps of burning legs and lungs plus one crash into the side railings I had to back off a bit.

Everyone around me was thankfully also reaching the end of their tether and as the race fragmented our ambitions fell to beating the one or two people nearest, or simply not to be caught by anyone else behind. By lap 5 the cardio from my distance running finally kicked in and I managed to stop slowing down while others continued to do so. I reeled in a few more and finished mid-pack. My legs were jelly, my throat felt sandpapered, and I wanted to wretch. The shock intensity of the first race leaves many in this state, but by week two we would already be seeing an improvement. As my confidence on the bike also grew I started to move up the field and finished my first season on the front row of the grid, leading the race for a lap and a half, and finishing 4th. There was great camaraderie as everyone developed their strengths and battled their weaknesses on the variety of challenging courses. Sometimes perfectly crisp autumn days, sometimes cold rainy muckfests, always a laugh.

Craig pushes bike through heavy mud on a churned up cyclocross course.

Photograph by Eric Blayney

Craig approaches corner on muddy trail.

Photograph by Bronagh Kirk – bronaghkirk.co.uk

As the longer races played to my strengths I was looking forward to the National Cyclocross Champs, which in 2013/14 were taking place in Lady Dixon Park only 3 miles from my house. This race would be 1 hour + 1 lap, not the 40-50 minute we were used to, so I was looking forward to lots of late overtaking through the large field of riders. Unfortunately, my rear tyre burped on the second lap despite giving no problems all season. The hard cornering and thick mud conspired to break the bead seal and I lost all the air pressure. I ran to the pits but could not get the tyre re-inflated. Race over. All that remained was to clean and store the bike, and get straight back to serious training for the UTMB.

I returned for the 2014 season to race towards a ‘top-half’ or a ‘not-lapped’ finish in the A category. I am seriously addicted, and as I type this in the tropics I have a little bit of envy for all my mates enjoying their weekend ‘cross races in the cool muddy autumn back home.

For more cyclocross information…

Check out ulstercyclocross.com to find a race near you. If you like bikes it is a great sport to spectate at. Pack a flask of your favourite warm brew, hang out in a park and cheer and heckle the lunatics. Who knows, you might be tempted to give it a go some day like I was!

Not just for the boys…

I also want to mention that the sport has many top female stars and there has been a push to introduce, welcome, and include women in the local races. From 3 or 4 women when I first watched the local cyclocross in 2012, to breaking double figures last season, to 20 women signed up for the start of this 2015 season it is only going to snowball from here. Have a look at Women’s Cycling Ulster on Facebook to be kept up to date with any specific events.

Stop press! The Phoenix Cyclocross Trophee just held the first womens only cyclocross race in Ireland (usually on course with Men’s B race). They chose to cut the Men’s MTB support race and allowed the Women’s MTB to partake with the Women’s Cyclocross. 30 riders took to the field. Let’s hope more events take notice of this success.

Craig leans into a corner.

Photograph by Peter Bennett – pbennettphotography.com

Craig whizzes past camera on his Vitus Energie cyclocross bike.

Photograph by Peter Bennett – pbennettphotography.com

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